As UN Climate Conference Approaches, Renewable Energy Makes Major Global Gains

Clean energy is “key” to climate action, according to a senior advisor to President Obama in a blog post published last week, which discussed the United States’ official greenhouse gas emissions-cutting target to the United Nations. The proposal formalizes a U.S. commitment to reducing emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Alongside the US commitment, the 28-member European Union, Switzerland, Norway and **Mexico **also submitted their own individual targets ahead of UN negotiations to be held in Paris later this year. Altogether, these countries account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Other major carbon polluters, including China, India, Russia and Canada, are expected to announce targets as the Paris summit gets closer.

Success in meeting these targets largely will be determined by these countries' ability to wean themselves off of fossil fuels and increase renewable energy capacity from such sources as solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal. Each country faces its own specific challenges determined its economic, political and geographical context.

But things are looking up in many countries around the world. Here are some of the most promising examples:

1. United States

It’s been a good decade for renewable energy in the US. Most recently, 90 percent of new electricity generation capacity added in January 2015 came from renewable energy sources. The largest source of new capacity came from wind energy (54.7 percent), followed by rooftop solar (26.7 percent), natural gas (10.5 percent) and utility-scale solar PV (8.1 percent).

Although renewable energy adoption varies from state-to-state, California — ever the leader in US sustainability — recently became the first state with more than 5 percent of its annual utility-scale electricity generation from utility-scale solar power, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The Golden State has achieved this by promoting solar power through a series of state policies, including a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that requires electricity providers to obtain 33 percent of the power they sell from eligible renewable sources by 2020. Last year, California obtained 22 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables including wind, solar and biomass.

2. Costa Rica

Ecotourism is one of the primary economic activities in Costa Rica, which gives Ticos a vested interest in environmental sustainability. The country’s state-run power supplier, Costa Rican Electricity Institute, recently announced that Costa Rica used renewable energy to meet 100 percent of its electrical demands in the first quarter of 2015. Thanks to heavy rainfall, most of the power came from hydropower plants, with the remaining electrical needs being covered by solar, wind and geothermal plants.

However, unpredictable weather patterns, likely thanks to climate change, means the country can’t always rely on hydropower to meet its energy demands. In 2014, for example, Costa Rica experienced a drought, which forced it to rely on diesel fuel for backup power generation. To avoid this from happening again, the country is investing in further developing geothermal power capacity.

3. Iceland

The Nordic island nation generates 100 percent of its electricity with renewables — 75 percent comes from hydropower, and 25 percent from geothermal. Just as impressive, Iceland provides some 87 percent of its demand for hot water and heat with geothermal energy, mainly through an extensive district heating system. Added together, hydro and geothermal sources meet 81 percent of Iceland’s primary energy requirements for electricity, heat and transportation.

4. Brazil

Renewable energy meets about 85 percent of Brazil’s electricity demands — nearly all of this comes from hydropower produced by the Itaipú hydroelectric dam, which it shares with neighboring Paraguay. Brazil also has invested big in sugarcane ethanol as an alternative to petroleum, which has achieved a 50 percent market share of its gas-powered vehicles.

Biofuels continue to gain contraction around the world, with global production having increased by 600 percent in a decade, to more than 100 billion liters in 2011. As water concerns increase, researchers from the University of Porto, Portugal, last year announced they are exploring water-free methods for purifying biofuels, including those made from waste cooking oils, animal fats and other fatty industrial wastes.

5. Denmark

Denmark already generates more than 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and is headed toward 50 percent by 2020. The Danes late last year announced an ambitious goal to wean themselves off of fossil fuels and power the entire country with renewables by 2050. But what sets the country apart is that it is applying this goal to electrical production as well as transportation.


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